Lindbergh: The tragedy of Derek Jeter’s defense

From SABR member Ben Lindbergh at on August 27, 2013:

For the third time this season, Derek Jeter is back. It’s more of a tentative return than a triumphant one, since the 39-year-old’s last two attempts to play led to rapid returns to the disabled list. But maybe this is the one when Jeter’s balky lower body will prove capable of keeping him on the field for more than four games at a time. If it is, the .225/.286/.307 line that Yankees shortstops have produced might start to look slightly more respectable. Even an admittedly diminished Jeter, sans muscle strain, can be counted on to deliver a steady supply of opposite-field singles; aside from a low-BABIP blip in 2010, his bat has never been a source of concern. It’s his glove that causes all the controversy. “He’s a guy that has been very successful at the top of the order and has played very good shortstop for us,” said manager Joe Girardi after Jeter’s 0-for-3 effort on Monday night in Toronto. No one would take issue with the first half of his statement. Plenty of people would refuse to accept the second.

Jeter has long been baseball’s most polarizing defensive player. In the right crowd — a mix of sabermetricians and the regulars at Stan’s Sports Bar — it takes just three words (“Derek Jeter’s defense”) to touch off a debate between people who are equally convinced that the Yankees captain is either one of the best or one of the worst defenders of all time. The “best ever” argument is easy. Jeter has the hardware; only four shortstops can top his total of five Gold Gloves. He’s one of the few fielders who have a signature move, the instantly recognizable Jeter jump-throw. He even has a pair of pantheon plays: the 2001 ALDS-saving maneuver commonly referred to as “the Flip,” and the header he took into the stands after chasing a popup in 2004.

On the other side are the advanced statistics, which disregard Gold Gloves and treat a flashy-looking jump-throw just like any other assist. According to two historical play-by-play-based systems, Baseball Prospectus’s Fielding Runs Above Average and Baseball-Reference’s Total Zone, Jeter has cost his team more in the field than any other player in history, with both methods assessing the damage at 230 to 260 runs.

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Originally published: August 28, 2013. Last Updated: August 28, 2013.